San Diego, CA – The 23rd edition of the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles concluded with a significant turn of events in the final hours of competition. The all women’s rally raid across southern Morocco lived up to its reputation as the toughest all women’s competition.
In total, 150 teams took part in the event, which took place March 16th-31st with teams divided into three classes: 4×4, Quad/Moto and Crossover. The event began in Erfoud, Morocco and from there competitors drove through Merzouga, El Beg’a, M’Hamid, Ihander, the highest dunes in northern Africa: Erg Chebbi and ended in Foum Zguid. In total the ideal combined distance ranged between 1200 to 1260 kms and estimated driving time of just over 80 hours. Two-person teams of drivers and navigators crossed the northern portion of the Sahara Desert completely off-road for nine days using only outdated maps, a compass and a ruler to guide their way. Cell phones and GPS units are strictly prohibited and personal support crews are not permitted. The goal is to reach set checkpoints in the least amount of distance with an optimal straight line. The team with the least amount of accumulated penalty points wins and competition days vary from rocky terrain, silty riverbeds, endless sections of camel grass to the famous dunes of Erg Chebbi and Erg Chegaga.
The competition favors experience and the top teams are a collection of professional and talented drivers and precise, seasoned navigators. Elisabete Jacinto, noted driver and Dakar Rally veteran had been running in first place the entire rally driving a factory prepared VW Amarok pickup. Running close behind was Olympic gold medalist skier and two-time Gazelle Rally champion, Carole Montillet. While the ranking appeared to be determined, in the final hours of the rally, both teams suffered major mechanical failures taking the teams off the podium.
With the two teams adding hefty penalty points to their scores, room opened up at the top for Team #188 Syndiely Wade and Florence Pham, who had held strong in 3rd place throughout the week. Wade, hailing from Senegal, is an experienced racer who has competed four times in the Dakar Rally, and won the Gazelle Rally in 2011 and navigator Pham, from Vietnam, swept three categories -1st place General Ranking 4×4 class; 1st place Isuzu Media Challenge and 1st Place Africa Top Sports Challenge.
A record number of five American teams from all regions of the country competed in this year’s event with a new, first year team capturing the coveted Top Ten in the 4×4 class. Team #136 comprised of Bethany Hamilton and Chrissie Beavis placed 8th in class against 124 teams. The victory represents the highest finish for a “rookie” American team. However, the teammates are by no means amateurs. Hamilton, a professional surfer who came back to the sport after losing her arm in a shark attack was driver and had no prior off-road competition experience. Beavis is a highly respected rally navigator and driver, having guided well-known drivers including Tanner Foust and Rhys Millen to noted victories. “The long days and challenges of the event were surprisingly difficult,” noted Hamilton. “Although we are both driven to win, I am extremely happy with our placement. Chrissie and I worked very well together and as the competition went on, I found myself becoming more and more comfortable driving off-road, growing my skill set and learning about the unpredictable terrain. It was great to be part of a team like this and have a teammate equally competitive.”
The team suffered some setbacks including a broken tie rod, four-wheel drive issues and steering difficulties including a frustrating day in the massive dunes of Erg Chebbi. However, they persevered and moved up into the top ten on the final day. “My racing has taught me that it’s not over until it’s over,” declared Beavis.
Beavis’s quote was a mantra for the three American teams that suffered major setbacks before the race had even begun when two shipping containers carrying their vehicles were rerouted due to the ship’s mechanical problems. All teams had to implement plan B options which forced them to rent rally prepped vehicles just days before the green flag dropped. Returning team #107 comprised of the sister duo, Amy Lerner and Tricia Reina had finished 8th in 2012 in their AEV Jeep Rubicon and were expected to capture a top finish for the United States. Although the team had a rough and rocky start with no time to test the truck, they held tough and climbed 42 positions to finish 32nd.
“The FJ Cruiser, our replacement vehicle, was much heavier in the dunes and it took some getting used to; however, Tricia and I were able to adjust well. We were by ourselves for much of the competition and did not see any of the other teams toward the end of the rally. Finding our way against the elements and with no other team contact really pushed us and showed us just what we are capable of.”
Team #185 comprised of Julie Meddows and Claire Barone, and Team #182 consisting of Pat Klishevich and Catherine Chiadmi, piloted Isuzu D-Max pickups and were able to finish the rally despite the frustrations.
Emme Hall, off-road racer and pilot of team #172 who competed with navigator Sabrina Howells, declared “This competition is the hardest thing I have ever done. I won’t go back the same person that started this rally. It’s given me challenge and ultimate satisfaction at the same time – knowing I can go anywhere, any place and in any circumstance and find my way.”